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ADHD in the Workplace

By CARTER HAMMETT - December 12 2012

A recent infographic on outlined some interesting shifts in the future labour market. Generation Y—“Mellennials,” those born between 1976 and 2001—occupy centre stage in the work place and bring with them a completely different mindset than previous generations of workers. Some of the shifts are radical, projections like:

By 2014, over 1/3 of the workforce will be millennials (i.e., born between 1976 and 2001).

By 2020? Almost half.

Millennials switch their attention between devices 27 times per hour, up from 17 times from previous generations.

Diversity is also on the upswing, with just under 60% of millennials white, compared to 72.5% in previous generations, and Hispanics increasing the most, from 12% to 18.5%.

People with disabilities also play a major role in diversity, but not all disabilities are visible. In fact, the great majority of disabilities, including epilepsy, mental health, dyslexia and other learning disabilities (LD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder are invisible. Fortunately, a service offering solutions to people with LD and ADHD in the workplace is just around the corner.

People often confuse LD and ADHD. The two conditions frequently co-exist and exhibit similar characteristics. Furthermore, many people living with ADHD also live with some form of learning disability. Until recently, ADHD was more frequently diagnosed in men. In women, the disability may manifest as behaviour that appears “spacey” or daydream-like in nature.

Like many persons with learning disabilities, workers with ADHD often remain un-or-under-employed. Executive functions like planning, memory, teamwork, multitasking and organization are skills expected in today’s workplace, but many of these traits remain huge problems for workers with ADHD.

Kathleen Nadeau, editor of A Comprehensive Guide to Attention Deficit Disorder in Adults (1994) identifies a number of “crisis points” she suggests may be “typical” in the work lives of adults with ADHD. These include:

  • a new position requiring tracking, prioritization, multitasking and rapid processing of detailed paperwork
  • a promotion requiring supervision and management of others
  • an organization taken over by a new management team that is inflexible and detail-oriented
  • supervision which is critical, detail oriented and inflexible

The common theme running throughout these situations appears to be an “overload” reaction for the ADHD employee, where competencies in activating, sustaining, shifting attention to, remembering and finishing a task, exceed the worker’s ability to cope.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom. Many folks with ADHD, including singer Justin Timberlake, Virgin Mobile’s Richard Branson and chef Jamie Oliver have gone on to become successful, and many even flourish in their positions. Furthermore, boundless energy and incredible social skills in those with ADHD, can find them flying high in media, social work, marketing and sales, recreational, and emergency response careers. It’s true that planning and long-term follow-through can be difficult for many ADHD adults, but some are able to respond superbly to situations calling for crisis intervention or immediate problem solving.


Some employers may resist hiring people with disabilities because they think accommodations might be required and therefore too expensive. The good news is that most accommodations for those with ADHD are cheap.

These can include:

  • providing a non-distracting work space
  • allowing opportunities to work from home or through telecommuting
  • checklists and written instructions to assist with auditory memory issues
  • removal of nonessential duties at the start of a new job
  • more structure and deadlines. Two fifteen-minute meetings a week can help the employee stay on track.
  • job coach/mentor through whom all information and instructions flow
  • more frequent, informal performance appraisals

Many of these accommodations are useful for people with learning disabilities as well, and these are present in about 70% of all people with ADHD. Accommodations can significantly enhance work performance and productivity. Salisbury University estimates that for every one dollar spent on accommodations for people with disability, $29 are generated for the company. That’s a pretty good return on investment and another reason why employing people with invisible disabilities like ADHD makes good business sense.

Carter Hammett is an employment counselor with JVS Toronto’s Project GOLD and a freelance writer/editor. He is the author of Benchmarking: A Guide to Hiring and Managing Persons With Learning Disabilities and the editor of Communique, a twice-yearly magazine published by The Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario.

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